How to use narrative in a rapid-response world

The three key ingredients you need to tell a story that wins hearts and minds.

BY Adam Wren
Senior Editor, Imagination

The human brain is hard-wired for narrative.

We’ve known this—instinctively, at least—for eons. First, we told stories in caves and around campfires, the glow of flames glinting off saucer-sized eyes. Then we told them on paper. Then on the silver screen. Now, we tell and consume them on the screens in the palm of our hands. With the glow of blue light washing over us, stories ignite networks of neurons in our brains.

But why?

In 2013, we began to understand the power of narrative more scientifically. As brain science advances, neuroscience researchers have discovered that narrative engages neurochemicals that imprint a story on our brains in a way other ways of organizing information can’t match, reports Pacific Standard. When consuming a narrative story based on real events, neuroscientists at Emory University found, readers’ “left temporal cortex lit up, and not just for the period immediately following the reading assignments. The neural changes persisted for several days. This is why we sometimes say that a story was so powerful we just can’t seem to shake it.”

And yet content marketers and other storytellers, of all people, too often forget the power of narrative. Not a dry recitation of facts or a list of bullets or charts and infographics, but a good old-fashioned pot-boiling narrative. According to Pacific Standard, these content structures are the way to reach audiences: “Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak, found their blood levels contained an increase of cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story. Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers.”

This better understanding comes alongside the resurgence of longform, narrative journalism documented and curated brilliantly by breakout sites such as and on podcasts such as Longform. It also explains the success of rich audio documentaries ranging from Serial to S-Town.

Associations and brands may balk when confronted with these deeply reported narratives. How, they wonder, can we tell these kinds of stories with limited time and money?

Not only is it possible, it’s becoming a best practice. No other content resonates like narrative.

But how do you deploy narrative in a rapid response world, where timeliness is of the essence? Here are three key ingredients all great narratives share, according to New York Times best-selling writer Donald Miller: A story is a character who wants something and is willing to overcome obstacles to get it.

A character …

A narrative needs a protagonist. A protagonist doesn’t always have to be a person, but for associations, a proven way to tell stories is by featuring a member.

Consider, for example, a recent narrative Imagination produced for NFIB, a small business association with hundreds of thousands of members. NFIB learned of a heartfelt story about how the owners of a Florida small business bent over backward to aid Hurricane Harvey victims, only to return home to find their own business ravaged by Irma. In this case, the character isn’t NFIB, it’s the member: the Soverns, who acquired their family business, Sawgrass Recreation Park, in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma, which had leveled the park. Their first task as business owners was to rebuild. Twelve years later, Hurricane Irma endangered the park again.

The Soverns are the protagonists, and NFIB is “the guide” of the story—think Mr. Miyagi, Gandalf or Robin Williams in the film Good Will Hunting. Every good narrative needs a guide. This is what Miller, the author, calls a “StoryBrand.”

“The customer is the hero of our brand’s story, not us,” Miller writes. “When we position our customer as the hero and ourselves as their guide, we will be recognized as a sought-after character to help them along their journey. In other words, your audience is Luke Skywalker. You get to be Yoda.”

... who wants something ...

The old method acting question is key here: What’s my motivation? What goal does the central character of the narrative want to accomplish?

In the story mentioned above, the business owner—intimately familiar with not only the travails of building a business, but also with what it takes to rebuild it after disaster strikes—wanted to help other entrepreneurs protect what they’ve labored a lifetime to create.

Among NFIB’s key messages as a brand is to tell the story of America’s love affair with small business owners: the gritty, self-starting heroes of Main Street. In this instance, the narrative matched that message perfectly.

... and overcomes obstacles to get it

It’s complicated. And that’s a good thing when it comes to narrative. Complications faced by your character resonate with audiences. What would Les Mis be if Jean Valjean didn’t have to serve 19 years in prison?

But to be able to produce such a story, you need buy-in from an organization. You need to help the organization identify a potential narrative and all of its elements, and then collaborate on finding the real sources and subjects that fit the bill. To build a culture of narrative within an organization, you also need to help the client understand that the most powerful stories sometimes don’t feature them as the protagonist.

Once NFIB notified Imagination of the Soverns’ story, we had a reporter reach out and interview the family. The entire piece took less than a day to report and write, as well as to get client approval. It was rapid yet still driven by narrative—and it came out in time to build on the attention people were paying to storms.

In this case, the story resonated.

“Tears,” the client said when reading the piece.

Why? The power of narrative. Does your story have those three components? If so, you might have an opportunity to deploy narrative. Identify them, and the story writes itself. And you might have an opportunity unlike any other to win the hearts and minds of your readers.

published: December 07, 2017

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